[photographer unknown]

Harry & Harriette Moore
(Assasinated 1951)

[photographer unknown]

See also: Harry & Harriette Moore Memorial Website

As remembered by Paij Wadley Bailey
June 23, 2006

In 1951, when I was about 11 years old, my mother, three sisters and I moved to Florida to be with my ailing grandmother, while my Dad and two brothers stayed home in Connecticut. Mrs Moore was my 6th grade teacher at George Washington Public School, the only segregated school I ever attended. She was also the only African-American teacher I had in my twelve years of public schools.

Mrs Moore did not complain or express outrage at having to teach us from old, tattered textbooks passed down to us from the white school. What she did do was teach us primarily from the few boxes of her own private books which she kept hidden under her desk. Her books were about African-American people who had made important contributions to the world — people like W.E.B. DuBois, and Mary McLeod Bethune. Mrs Moore taught us about the freedom fighters Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. She read stories to us by Zora Neale Hurston and poems by Langston Hughes, and she shared her Ebony Magazine articles about black history.

This learning was deep and personal; it was important because it was about people like us, and it was secret. She didn't have to tell us not to tell anyone about these books. We knew they were dangerous when she appointed one of us to be a look-out person at the window so if the Superintendent of Schools came on one of his unannounced inspections, he wouldn't catch us using them. These books — their physical existence and the stories they told — taught me about unspoken truths, secrets and lies.

We all knew — and knew not to tell anyone — that Mrs Moore and her husband were key people in starting a chapter of the NAACP. Now, at the beginning of a new century, an NAACP chapter sounds pretty tame, but I am talking about Florida in 1951 when it was dangerous for more than three black people to get together except in church. Just how dangerous was forcefully taught to us on the day toward the end of the school year when Mrs Moore, her family, and their house was blown up.

A bunch of us, ages six to fifteen, were walking past the Moore's house on our way to school when we saw what remained of them: bits and pieces of bodies strewn about, legs without feet, an arm, half of a head. The one thing standing on their property that morning was a newly erected chain-link fence being guarded by two white men who shouted warnings to us that no one was to touch anything and that we'd better get our "black asses to school."

When we arrived at school that terrible day, another African-American teacher met us and we spent the day talking about what had happened. She reminded us that not all white people were mean spirited, and we sang hymns, witnessed our love for Mrs Moore, and tried to remember what she would say about fear. We wept, we moaned, we stared open-mouthed at the air, and by the end of that day, our childhood was over.

My sisters and I were visitors to Florida. Our public schooling had begun in West Hills, CT, a town whose one industry — the Winchester Repeating Arms factory — was booming because of WW II. Our school was integrated when ten African-American men and their families, including mine, moved from the south. Having spent our earlier years in the north, my sisters and I were not so well trained in southern ways of keeping quiet; we were ignorant about "knowing our place." After the assassination, I raged about wanting to fight every white child I met. About three days after the explosion, a white friend of my grandmother's took my mother aside and warned her that my anger could be dangerous. By the end of that fateful week, my mother had us packed up and headed north, home to Connecticut.

I trace many huge and important lessons to that time, including the still familiar perversion of truth which feels branded onto my heart: "Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me." This extremely dangerous lie might have been partially believed by NAACP members like Mrs Moore, who used words/names like "justice" and "equality" at their meetings. For her, "justice" and "equality" were qualities of life to which we were all entitled. To advocates of racial hatred, these names threatened their domination based way of life. For everyone, these words were clearly the reason that Mrs Moore and her family were assassinated. I didn't have to read a lot of books to understand, and no one had to remind me again, that words — names — and the power to use them, could not just hurt, they could, and did, kill.

Copyright © Paij Wadley Bailey

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